Imagine living in a retirement community. Listen. The comforting chatter of friends in the dining room, the cheerful staff asking you how your day is going—can you hear these heartwarming sounds?
Now, imagine you can’t. What if words spoken softly, or even loudly, were muffled or muted?
At least you’d be “among kin,” said audiologist Boris Chang, a regional manager at HearCANADA. He said most residents in senior living communities have hearing loss, as do 9 out of 10 Canadians in their 70s.
Retirement residences promise support, stimulation, and social experiences—advantages that appeal to many older adults. “They’ve been in a quiet house environment,” said Chang, adding that prolonged isolation carries risks. “Research has shown,” he said, “that people who do not have as many social connections and social situations are at a much higher risk of cognitive decline.”
So, communities are good places to move into. Or are they? What if you are hard of hearing or deaf?
The Challenges of Hearing Loss in a Retirement Community
Hearing loss managed well at home can pose problems in a community with many shared spaces and group activities. “Maybe there’s three or four talkers at once; maybe there’s background noise,” said Chang.
Then, there are the daily interactions with unfamiliar residence employees and visiting strangers such as healthcare professionals. If you have difficulty understanding what nurses, personal support workers, and staff are saying, said Chang, “you might run into some troubles.”
Intriguingly, many older adults aren’t fazed, he said, “because they don’t even know they have hearing loss.”
“The average person takes about seven years from hearing-loss onset to deciding to deal with it,” said Chang. Many Canadians don’t recognize they have hearing loss. In the first stage where someone is “blissfully unaware” (as Chang put it) of their impairment, their loved ones often do spot the signs.
And it’s these family members who may worry about a retirement-community transition, said Chang. “Sometimes the son or daughter thinks, ‘I know to look at my mom and to speak a bit slower when I communicate with her because she has a hearing loss. But if she moves, I don’t know if the staff and her new friends are going to show her the same amount of patience.’”
Fortunately, though, many retirement communities are prepared to help older adults with hearing loss communicate and socialize effectively.
Creating an Inclusive Living Space for Hard-of-Hearing or Deaf Retirement Community Residents
In a fully accessible environment, you or your hard-of-hearing or deaf loved one should be safe, socially and cognitively stimulated, and happy. Here are four ways that independent-living, assisted-living, and other senior living communities accommodate residents with hearing loss:
1. Hearing expertise.
Many communities “have nurses or support staff that have basic knowledge of hearing aids,” said Chang. Knowledgeable staff can help residents insert, adjust, or clean their hearing aids, “and they know to speak face to face to residents and repeat themselves if needed,” he said.
Some communities have hearing specialists who work on-site or visit regularly. HearCANADA’s services at retirement residences include hearing tests, hearing aid clean-and-checks, and staff education seminars.
2. Preferred seating.
“We know to put the person with hearing loss at the front of our presentation or at the corner in the dining room because there’s the least amount of noise in the corner,” said Chang.
3. Hearing-friendly building design.
“Look for a retirement home where the social settings have a lot of carpet,” said Chang, explaining that uncarpeted floors cause echoes. Sound dampening materials (e.g., felt) added to walls also absorb noise, making it easier to hear.
“You also want to look for homes where their social settings do not have very high ceilings,” said Chang. Vaulted ceilings can make speech hard to understand.
4. Other adaptations for hearing-impaired or deaf residents.
Examples include emergency alarms equipped with flashing lights or vibrating mechanisms, telephones and video communication devices with amplified audio, TV and movies with closed captioning, as well as tailored social activities.
Select Carefully or Risk Loneliness and Dementia
“People don’t like to repeat themselves all the time,” said Chang. If fellow residents aren’t ready to speak louder or be patient “and the staff aren’t willing to put in extra care,” he said, you’ll have a hard time communicating. Being excluded leads to frustration and loneliness. And social interactions, said Chang, “keep a brain healthy.”
The World Health Organization links hearing loss in older adults to early cognitive decline and dementia (including Alzheimer’s disease). Unmanaged age-related hearing impairment can also lead to depression, cause accidental falls, and increase the likelihood of untreated health conditions.
Two Questions to Ask Retirement Communities If You Have Hearing Loss
When touring residences, said Chang, ask two questions:
1. “Do you have other residents with hearing loss?”
2. “In what ways do you accommodate hearing loss?”
For Question 1, the answer needs to be “yes.” For Question 2, beware of residences that don’t give you a satisfying answer.
Chang said HearCANADA specialists have visited communities “where the staff members are afraid to touch hearing technology because devices are an investment and staff don’t want to be liable if anything breaks or they lose it. That’s the wrong approach. We want to make sure that the staff there are trained and educated on hearing technology.”
Choose a Community Where You’ll Thrive with Hearing Loss
“Make sure you move into a community home that you have the confidence that the staff there has the knowledge and the care to handle somebody with hearing loss,” said Chang. Otherwise, “you can’t participate. You can’t follow instructions.”
If a residence can’t help you manage your hearing loss, he said, “I would look for one that can.” And with so many retirement communities to choose from, you should have plenty of options to make a sound decision.
- For a full list of questions to ask when touring retirement communities, please download our Retirement Home Tour Checklist.
- Need help choosing a hearing- or deaf-friendly retirement community? Please reach out to us, or book a time for a friendly, free, no-obligation consultation.
- Need hearing aids, a hearing test, or other hearing products or services? Check out HearCANADA’s website, which includes a comprehensive Hearing Health Guide.